Review: Fool’s Quest

Fool’s Quest (Fitz and the Fool 2) Robin Hobb
Novel 2015

When you get to the second book in the third trilogy of a fantasy series of fourteen books, you have already invested a substantial amount of time in the fictional world of the author. In Robin Hobb’s case her world is both substantial and somewhat narrow. She has built two different fantasy series around the same world. In the north the Fitz novels about a royal bastard and his life and further south the sea and river based adventures of the traders of Bing Town and the Rain Wild River. The overarching connecting stories between the three Farseer trilogies (centered on Fitz) and Rain Wild River books is the return of dragons to the world and the legacy of the humanoid elderling civilization that once lived and cared for the dragons. A primary strength of these books is Hobb’s ability to layer story arcs across different time spans that allow her immediate storytelling to concentrate on what can seem like the nitty gritty of people’s lives whilst still maintaining a sense of  an epic fantasy story line.

The Farseer trilogies have each followed a similar structure across the three books:

  1. book one covers an extended phase of Fitz’s life. A substantial amount of time passes. In the first book (‘Royal Assassin’) Fitz passes from childhood to early manhood. In the more recent book (‘Fools Assassin’) we follow Fitz in a period of late middle age, his raging wife’s mysterious pregnancy and the early childhood of Bee his daughter. The supernatural threat that forms the arc of the whole trilogy appears only partially in each of the initial books of the three trilogies.
  2. book two of each trilogy typically covers a shorter period of time over which the underlying supernatural threat is made more explicit. Fitz’s attempts at happiness or a quiet life are thwarted and the inevitably of a confrontation with evil become clear.
  3. book three of the trilogies tends to be shaped more like a classic quest, but by this point Hobb has ensured that the stakes for Fitz are personal and emotional, as well as altruistic.

The structure allows Hobb to concentrate on personal relationships and personal drama and central to this is Hobb’s other protagonist – the Fool. The relationship between Fitz (a sensitive man but otherwise a character who could exist in most fantasy worlds) and the Fool is distinctly different from most major fantasy novels. The Fool is a mercurial character with a fluid gender and a deep personal love for Fitz. It is a rare for a fantasy author to decide that in there world-building they can include emotional connections between people other than stock societal norms and Hobb goes further and makes this relationship an increasingly important aspect of the trilogies.
Having said all that the other aspects of the world seem more thinly drawn. In the first trilogy the corruption of the monarchy was a central aspect of the plot but as that arc was resolved, Hobb’s Duchies have tended to fall into the trap of uncritically accepting the goodness of monarchial rule. Fitz stands to one side of the aristocracy but for reason probably due more to avoiding the endless plot branching plaguing George RR Martin’s opus, her monarchs tend to dewy-eyed idealism.

As with the other trilogies, this second book makes use of dithering to build tension. We know things are getting worse and Hobb keeps the hero stuck in dealing with the ins-and-outs of life before he can start the quest proper.

For plot reasons there is a greater air of sexual violence in this book compared with the others. Violence, torture and psychological injury have all been present in the previous books but I felt there was at times, a gratuitousness to the violence of two of the villainous characters in this book. While Hobb avoids the cynical tone of Abercrombie or the fatality rate of Martin, her books still have a hefty chunk of qualities that are both grim in places and somewhat dark.

Hobb has left enough loose ends in her overarching plot to justify revisiting both Fitz and the Fool but it also is fair to say that she doesn’t seem to have a lot left to say about either character.

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